Fraser Forum

Italy’s referendum—diminishing democracy or cutting the fat?

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On Dec. 4, Italian voters will be asked to cast their ballots on a constitutional referendum bill put forth by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (pictured above). This referendum is essentially about streamlining the operations and functions of the Italian government in an effort to make Italian government more stable, nimble and cost-effective in an increasingly fast-paced and changing world.

Italy certainly has much work on its hands in grappling with its public-sector size. According to recent numbers from the OECD, Italy’s government expenditure to GDP ratio was 51 per cent while its gross public debt to GDP ratio was 156 per cent. By way of comparison, Canada comes in with a public sector size of about 40 per cent and a gross government debt to GDP ratio of 108 per cent.

The referendum is a simple “yes” or “no” vote to a proposed set of somewhat complicated reforms—it’s definitely not a simple question. First, the current system of “perfect bicameralism” whereby the senate (which represents Italy’s regions) and the Chamber of Deputies (constituency representatives), which are currently equal in their powers over legislation would be changed to a system of reduced legislative powers for the senate.  

Indeed, the confidence vote of the senate would no longer be required to maintain a government in office. This change is an effort to deal with the enormous instability of Italian governments, more than 60 since the end of the Second World War.  

Moreover, the number of senators would be reduced from 315 to 100 and their selection would no longer be through a direct popular vote. Ninety-five senators would be elected via the regional councils from a pool of mayors or regional council members and the remaining five are to be appointed directly by the Italian president.

Second, there are a number of administrative reductions including the abolishment of the National Council for Economics and Labour—a consultative assembly composed of experts, and representatives from public- and private-sector industry and social and voluntary organizations. As well, provinces—the second tier regional administrative divisions—are removed from the constitution except for the autonomous provinces of Bolzano and Trento in the north.

Finally, there are a number of other changes tacked onto the bill dealing with the petition procedure to facilitate popular initiatives to propose new legislation, the selection of constitutional court judges, the size of the parliamentary majority required to elect a president (increased to three-fifths), the review of electoral laws and the primacy of the Chamber of Deputies in declaring a state of war.

Needless to say, the complexity of the items on the ballot is both a testament to the sophistication of Italian political debate as well as a reflection of the convoluted and fractious nature of Italian politics. Such a complex set of proposals to be decided by a simple “yes” or “no” vote will invariably stir opposition. Everyone can find something they do not like even if one can be persuaded that on balance the pros of reform exceed the cons. Indeed, recent polling results suggest Renzi’s proposals are headed for defeat.

The reforms can be criticized as reducing democracy—especially with respect to election of senators and the reduction of public representative institutions—as well as creating a new set of uncertainties in terms of the proposed legislative procedures. At the same time, the proposals are an attempt at reform designed to reduce the cost of government by streamlining its operations.

While these reforms may be an imperfect attempt at change, a defeat of the proposed reforms mean there will be no change. That will unsettle financial markets, possibly end Renzi’s tenure as prime minister (he has promised to resign if the proposals are defeated) and continue the burdensome nature of Italian government.

Canadians should not be too smug in their assessment of the Italian situation as Italy is at least making an effort at governmental reform via a referendum. In contrast, our attempts at senate reform over the last two decades have been merely talk and our apparent pending referendum on electoral reform is still pending.  


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